I’m reading a fascinating book by Bob Woodward called Fear in the White House which gives some insight into the chaos that has been created by Donald Trump.
In an early chapter, before he took on the presidency, Trump requests a briefing from Gary Cohn, a former Goldman Sachs president who went on to serve as Trump’s economic adviser before being fired along with most of Trump’s other lieutenants. In the briefing, Cohn paints a fairly positive picture for the US economy but warns that open global trade is the key to its success. Clearly, the red-headed loose cannon didn’t listen to this advice. Populist leadership and nationalistic, protectionist policies are now the flavour of the day globally. And in South Africa, it has created another reason for angst regarding the well-being of our already fragile economy.
I’ve been fortunate to have been involved in businesses of travel and tourism for most of my career. Kulula was a disruptor which made air travel accessible to a much broader market. My focus over the past few years has been building a unique new boutique hotel offering in South Africa. I’ve always found business to be complex and challenging yet highly stimulating and rewarding. One of the hardest things is to figure out what you’re really good at relative to everyone else and how you can build on those strengths and build new ones.
Likewise, as a country, we need to be asking ourselves what we are really good at and what we need to change in a rapidly evolving global environment. A further question is what are we good at that has sustainability in the context of unstable global trade. The good news is that we happen to be really good at one of the biggest industries in the world – tourism. Over one-billion tourist trips are taken every year globally resulting in over $8-trillion of economic activity with strong growth driven mainly by the Chinese. Tourism is a brilliant job creator – in SA over 700,000 tourism jobs (mining employs less than 500,000). South Africa currently attracts only a sliver of the global tourism market – a few million in a good year.
Croatia is an interesting case study. Like SA, This country has had a violent and troubled recent history. Its population of 4 million people live in a tiny country of 56 thousand square kilometres (SA 1,2 million). Over the past two decades, it has more than tripled it’s tourist visitors to 18 million in 2017, making tourism one it’s main economic contributors. Croatia has built itself one of top 20 tourist destinations in the world and offers year-round attractions including a growing skiing industry in the winter.
Here is why South Africa is positioned to be a world beater at Tourism:
We have the most beautiful and diverse natural attractions – pristine coastline, dramatic mountains and of course the African bush;
We have a weak currency and offer a “premium” tourist experience on a “value” budget ;
Middle Eastern airlines like Emirates have made access from anywhere on the globe easy and affordable (Emirates flies into SA eight times every day);
We have people that are perfectly suited to hospitality and can easily train many more – South Africans generally are hospitable and kind;
We have overturned our Gigaba visa disaster making it easy once again for tourists to come here; and
We have water in Cape Town.
Competing effectively in a global economy means we can’t rely only on our superb natural and human resources. We also need to continuously tap into our creativity to invent and re-invent our offerings. The Cape Town International Convention Centre compares with the best in the world and recently added a massive new wing to the precinct. The SLOW airport lounges also compete with the best in the world in terms of design and experience. The Citysightseeing Hop-On Hop-Off bus company is magnificently run in Cape Town and recently opened up in Johannesburg as well. South African businesses know how to innovate and deliver.
We have in the palm of our hands an opportunity to capture a delicious slice of a massive and growing global industry insulated from trade wars. Our country’s leadership see it – Cyril mentioned tourism as a key contributor to the economy in his first State of the Nation address. We also have generous tax incentives like Section12J that make investing in tourism and hotels very attractive.
As multiple rugby World Cup winners and global beaters and a few other sports, we know how good it feels to be the best in the world. We should aspire to be the best tourist destination in the world. DM
Gidon Novick is the founder of Lucid Ventures, a 12J investment fund, and a founder of kulula.com.